Grass Is Greener?

In my recent travels to Australia and Chile I saw two places where government funding for the arts is far more generous than is true in the U.S. (Yes, we know that is not a very high bar to leap.) In one, Australia, funding is by our standards significant. In the other, funding is nearly total, so much so that even basic concepts like audience development and audience engagement are foreign. My hosts in Santiago told me that patron loyalty is not an issue many arts organizations there address. (What does concern Chilean arts officials is the attempt to connect broadly with as much of the population as possible. Thus, they have a particular concern for community engagement.)

Sounds like funding heaven, right? Certainly, being valued by the government as an important part of society and the (near) certainty that money will be available for basic operations borders on utopian fantasy for those of us in the States.

And yet . . . in Australia, arts officials were waiting to see if the next budget (set to begin in less than 5 weeks) would force them to eliminate important positions. Chilean managers discussed concerns regarding red tape and unresponsive bureaucracies.

These are both “known issues” that plague government funding. However, the big thing that was new to me was that in both countries lack of trust in the government made it difficult for arts organizations to connect with communities. In Australia, First Nations, recent immigrants, and other marginalized populations are sometimes hesitant to work with recipients of government funds. The same was true in Chile but an even more significant factor there was the impact of the nation’s relatively recent history. The arts workers I met told me that almost no one trusted the government or any of its representatives. [While the country’s dictatorship is almost twenty years in the past, not one person with whom I spoke about Chile’s history ever mentioned the name Pinochet. They always referred to “the dictatorship.”] Arts organizations seeking to develop community relationships there have significant work to do to foster even a modicum of trust.

In both countries, Q&A sessions raised concerns about how to build relationships when communities the arts were seeking to reach did not trust the sources of the funds they were using. (Of course the reason lack of trust in the government is not much of an issue in the U.S. is that the amount of money involved is so small.)

Also, in both places I heard wistfulness about the private funds for the arts that they understand to exist in the U.S. In Australia, private money is limited and in Chile it is virtually non-existent.

The view from over the fence seldom sees that there are problems lurking in the green grass. For the purposes of this blog, understanding how each system can impede relationship building is important. Later (probably in the early fall), I’ll apply the same lens to the negative impact of private funding on building trust in new communities. Until then





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Deep Engagement

International Presenters
II International Seminar on Cultural Mangement

In June it was my privilege to be a presenter at the II International Seminar on Cultural Management at GAM Center for the Arts in Santiago, Chile. The focus was on territories (neighborhoods, regions, towns/cites) and communities and it provided me with a great learning opportunity to observe the practice of community engagement in South America. (There were presenters from Argentina, Peru, and Uruguay as well as Chile.)

As a result of the centrality of government funding, the emphasis in much of the work in the arts appears to be on developing connections with communities. (I’ll have more to say about the positive–and negative–aspects of such funding in the future.) I learned of:

  • Peru’s Gran Teatro Nacional which, as a result of its architecture, has its back to a poor neighborhood in Lima. Staff there are working to alleviate the situation by establishing working relationships with the the people who live “behind” their building.
  • Uruguay’s Artistic Training Schools (a part of SODRE) that have implemented long-term student projects working with communities as part of the curriculum.
  • Site-specific theater projects in Buenos Aires in areas around the Teatro 25 de Mayo. Bombon Vecinal used homes and apartments as venues for telling neighborhood stories in a way that resembles progressive dinners, moving from one location to the next. I was particularly impressed by the investment in getting to know the residents and using the event to tell those people’s stories.
  • Galleria Metropolitana, a neighborhood-based art center/gallery in Santiago. It is an extension of the home–literally, an attached tin shed–of the founding couple and has for twenty years served as a gathering place and center for contemporary art that bridges the gap between conceptual visual arts practice and social justice concerns of the area’s residents.
  • KIMVNTeatro, a multi-disciplinary company focused on concerns of the Mapuche people, working directly with them in development and presentation.
  • And two on-going projects using the arts to create community in unusual ways:
    • Hula-la featuring lessons and performance in hula hoop (seriously). Participants bond in their shared love for the activity and spread awareness through public performances.
    • Similarly, Leona’s Project is a dance training and performance program. (Instagram link) It focuses on women’s self-esteem and safety using, yep, dance hall routines and twerking. (You read that correctly.) The have a significant community following based on their pop-up performances across Santiago.

The consistent focus on connecting with individuals and groups who were not part of any typical “arts scene” was invigorating, if at times the means of connection might have been a bit . . . unusual.

Many thanks to the conference organizers as well as the participants for providing such a compelling learning opportunity for all of us in attendance.



Shades of Meaning

At long last I am back from my journeys to Australia and Chile. It has been an exhilarating time full of making new friends, learning about the practice of community engagement around the world, and uncovering insights into new ways of thinking and working in this field. As is typical, I have several weeks of material for blog posts.

CircuitWest Showcase 2019 Attendees

At the CircuitWest Showcase in Perth, Australia artists, producers, and presenters met to discuss their work and make plans for the next several years. Perth is a city of about 2 million people set in the state of West Australia, a state that encompasses about 1/3 of the continent. According to a recent census, the next largest city is Bunbury, population 71,000. The next largest group of cities is in the 30,000 range. And even moreso than in the western U.S., the distances between population centers are vast. Perth itself has been described as the most remote city on the planet. It’s a five hour plane ride from any comparably sized city.

The point of this is not an academic travelogue. The principal topic of conversation at the Showcase was touring, the moving of arts events between the cities and towns of Western Australia. The logistics are one of the most critical pieces of the discussions.

But more to the point with regard to community engagement, the touring artists and production companies have had to develop skills in short-turnaround relationship building in the small cities and towns that host them. (One of the reasons for that is that there has been a concerted push by government funders for community engagement in the arts.) Long-time readers know that I warn that tying community engagement to arts events when there is no pre-existing relationship carries the danger of being seen as exploitative: “You’re just trying to sell me a ticket.” However, in WA circumstances, I suspect that populations understand the realities of travel well enough to be more open to overtures from the artists.

In addition, the touring companies have developed some pretty good engagement chops. Indeed, two of them specifically use the communities as the source material for their work. They spend a week or two in the community, collect local stories, and place those stories on stage or screen for everyone to see and enjoy. It takes exceptional writers and actors to make that work, but it’s a good solution to the inherent problem.

And companies that do not create community-based work typically develop substantive relationship building activities into the run-up to their performances–working, for example, with children and/or adults in the performance medium in advance of the event or holding community discussion opportunities on the topic of the show. (Interestingly, many of the subjects addressed are very serious: domestic abuse, depression, oppression of indigenous people.)

Granted, workshops and discussions look very much like what I typically call audience engagement. However, in the WA context, alternatives are limited; community members are, I imagine, OK with the situation; and the need to develop and maintain relationships long-term is so important to both the artists and the presenters that the efforts appear genuine rather than an afterthought or grudging task.

One suggestion I did make was that the local presenters could work on developing a community engagement infrastructure into which touring artists could tap when they arrive. This would be much like an arts organization in an urban center hiring a community organizer to build local relationships that artists could ease into in their relatively limited time on site. Of course, presenters in the smallest towns are already experts in community engagement out of sheer necessity. Some of the presenter towns have populations under 5,000. You can’t exist as a presenter in a place that size without knowing (nearly) everyone who lives there.

My point and personal takeaway is that the lines between community engagement and audience engagement are not as clear-cut as I sometimes suggest. Context has a huge impact on the nature of our work.

Thanks to my new friends in WA for the insight!



On the Road

As you read this, if all has gone well, I will have begun a six week stretch of travel. The two principal stops are Perth, Australia (Western Australia Showcase) and Santiago, Chile (II International Seminar of Arts Management at Central Gabriela Mistral, GAM). In each city I am speaking at a conference that will be focusing on community engagement in the context of the host country (or region, in the case of Western Australia). Interestingly, performing arts presenter venues form a key group of attendees in both conferences. In each city I am speaking at a conference that will be focusing on community engagement in the context of the host country (or region, in the case of Western Australia). Interestingly, performing arts presenter venues form a key group of attendees in both conferences.

I am sure there will be much on which to report when I get back, but as this is the start of the slow summer season, I will probably wait to get to the really good stuff until early fall. As has been my practice for the last few years, I’ll be cutting back on the frequency of posts over the next couple of months.

While I will be posting some over the summer, for those of you who (probably wisely) pay little attention to blogs during the dog days, have a great break. Hope to “see” you in the fall. For the rest of you, stay tuned. We’ll try to have some interesting things to read in the weeks to come. And, as always . . .




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Gaia, Healthcare, and the Arts

The arts will always exist.
Wherever there are human beings the arts will be there.
It is far less clear that today’s arts organizations
will survive through the next several generations.

(You know you are old when you begin to use self-quotes as epigrams.)

This post responds to three things I’ve read recently that have me stewing (again) about the future of big- (and medium-) box nonprofit arts organizations, the ones that bear the DNA of the European aristocratic cultural tradition.

First, in articles about healthcare for all, I learned that one group of supporters views the elimination of the entire health insurance industry as a feature, not a bug. They believe the industry’s very nature is incompatible with the provision of cost-effective, responsive care. While I’m in total support of an approach that leads to universal healthcare, there is a mind-boggling investment in the healthcare infrastructure. I found myself wondering if eliminating it at a stroke is wise. And that reminded me of my frequent observation that we as a society have invested so much financial and human capital in the nonprofit arts industry that it needs to be re-directed so that it can far better serve the broad public good.

Second, the NY Times article The Earth Is Just Alive as You Are was a fascinating discussion of the theory that the earth as a whole is a living organism. It evolves as a sum of the parts that inhabit it. One of my takeaways was that there will always be life on earth so long as there is an earth. Even immediately after a nuclear war, there is a good case to be made that some species would survive. But there may not be human life. Careful readers, note the quote at the beginning of this post.

And third, my blogging buddy Trevor O’Donnell says he’s throwing in the towel in his effort to get arts marketers to adopt customer-centered marketing. (I’ve Been Wrong This Whole Time) He has become convinced that big nonprofit arts organizations, because of their core nature, are incapable of change and we shouldn’t annoy them by trying to make them do things differently. I pray they can change but I won’t swear to it.

One of my very first public presentations about the arts and community engagement took place nine years ago in St. Louis. My title was “Turning a Reluctant Battleship: The Arts Establishment and Community Arts.” I got a lot of pushback then that the big organizations were incapable of change.

I won’t swear that significant change is possible; but I live in hope fueled by awareness of what a terrible waste of societal resources it would be if it’s not. And I do see people–many people–working to transform thinking in our industry. But the inertial forces that preclude community-focused thinking are certainly overwhelming. That’s why I used the battleship metaphor.

I would ask that we all keep doing all we can as long as our energy lasts and trust that when we can’t handle it any longer others will step up. (And Trevor, thanks for being a voice in the wilderness.)




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